Starting a Farm-to-School Program

Fruits and vegetables provide important nutrients that help children grow and thrive, but few kids and teens eat enough of them. They might not have access to a variety of produce at home, or they think of fruits and vegetables as things they should eat rather than ones they want to eat.

Farm-to-school is one way to get students excited about healthy eating. The term “farm-to-school” encompasses a variety of preK-12 programs that bring local produce into schools and teach students about nutrition through fun, experiential learning.

Farm-to-school programs can include:

  • incorporating local farm products into school meals
  • offering local produce during snack time
  • growing school gardens
  • taste-testing local produce
  • taking field trips to local farms or community gardens
  • inviting farmers or chefs into the classroom

Farm-to-school can work in any climate. Schools in colder regions might emphasize local produce more in the spring and fall, incorporate frozen or canned local produce into winter meals, or feature low- or nonfat milk from local dairies between produce seasons.

Schools also have flexibility in determining what counts as “local.” Schools can define “local” in terms of miles, counties, states, regions, or types of produce. Your school’s definition will depend on how close it is to farming areas and the variety of farm products available in the region.

Healthy Students and Schools

As students learn where their food comes from and get exposed to a variety of fresh produce, they discover that healthy food can be tasty and satisfying. Studies show that, over time, students in schools with farm-to-school programs tend to:

  • eat more fruits and vegetables at school and at home
  • eat less junk food
  • drink less soda
  • be more physically active
  • know more about healthy eating
  • become more willing to try new and healthy foods
  • ask for healthier foods at home
  • do better in school

Farm-to-school programs also benefit schools. They help schools that participate in federal meal programs meet federal nutrition standards, which require that school breakfasts offer at least 1 serving of fruit and that lunches offer at least 1 serving each of fruit and vegetables. Schools with farm-to-school programs have higher participation in school meals, which means more food-service revenue. And school staff often adopt healthier eating habits when local foods are offered at schools.

Build Partnerships

To get your farm-to-school program started, contact other schools in your district or nearby districts that have successful programs to learn how they run theirs. Many states have farm-to-school coordinators and every USDA Food and Nutrition regional office has a farm-to-school regional staff person who can provide information and connect you with other programs.

You also can reach out to local farmers to check their interest and find out what foods they can offer. Farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture coalitions, farmer cooperatives, and farmer bureaus can be good places to start.

Discuss farm-to-school with administrators, food-service managers, and teachers. Once you have the interest of school staff, you can start promoting the idea to students, parents, and community groups to get their input. If possible, organize a meeting to bring interested parties together and brainstorm goals and ideas.

Possible goals include:

  • increasing healthy food offerings at school
  • raising awareness about health and nutrition
  • getting students to try new fruits and vegetables
  • teaching students about local agriculture
  • improving the health curriculum
  • integrating health and nutrition information into other subjects, such as math, science, and language arts

Find Funding

Funding your farm-to-school program may simply be a matter of reallocating some of the existing food-service budget for local foods, asking distributors to provide local food whenever possible, and stating a preference for local produce when seeking competitive bids and price quotes.

If you need additional funds to plan or implement your farm-to-school program, grants are available from government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private foundations, and businesses. Some schools use special fundraisers, like community meals, cookbooks, or walk-a-thons.

Start Small, Then Grow

Starting small allows staff who are implementing the program to learn as they go, and it gives schools the flexibility to revise the program as new opportunities and insights arise.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Create a list of local produce available by season or get a list from your local cooperative extension.
  • Talk to distributors that your school’s food-service manager already works with to find out what local items they offer.
  • If your school participates in the federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, it could offer local fruit and vegetable snacks when in season.
  • Work with food-service staff to develop new menu items that feature local produce. Find out if they need additional training or updated procedures to work with local produce.
  • Introduce just one or two local items at first. Start with something that most kids and teens already like, such as apples, carrots, or oranges.
  • Feature a different local, seasonal food each month in your school’s hot lunch or salad bar.
  • Plant a windowsill garden in your classroom.
  • Look at the school’s curriculum and teaching standards for opportunities to connect lesson plans to nutrition and agriculture.

If no schools in your district have a farm-to-school program yet, it may work best to launch a pilot program in one or two schools, and then expand it to others once it’s operating smoothly.

Whatever type of farm-to-school project you decide to take on, get students excited about it. Talk about the program in class and promote local foods with special signs in the cafeteria, announcements via social media, taste-testing events, cooking lessons, and notices in school menus.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014